Tech. Science. Culture.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Desperate Lawmakers Discuss Piping Ocean Water to Fill Great Salt Lake

A Utah legislative commission voted to study the possibility of building a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the drying lake.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Salt mounds in the Great Salt Lake, May 3, 2022.
Salt mounds in the Great Salt Lake, May 3, 2022.
Photo: Rick Bowmer (AP)

A legislative commission in Utah has given the green light to study several strategies to help with the worryingly low levels of water in the Great Salt Lake—including potentially building a pipeline to carry water over land from the Pacific Ocean. The study to determine “the feasibility and cost of piping water from the ocean to help fill the Great Salt Lake” was approved as part of a master list of other initiatives during a session of the state’s Legislative Water Development Commission held Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of water in the ocean, and we have very little in the Great Salt Lake,” Sen. David Hinkins (R), the commission’s co-chair, said during the meeting. That is… true!

The potential pipeline would have a pretty arduous journey. The Great Salt Lake is, as the crow flies, some 600 miles away from the Pacific Coast. Any possible pipeline would almost certainly have to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains, as well as pass through both California and Nevada before getting to the lake. Lawmakers in the session acknowledged that the plan’s cost could be in the billions.

Advertisement

“It’s just an idea,” Hinkins told Fox 13. “Other countries are doing it to fill their lakes because of the drought situations. We ought to know if there’s a feasibility or even if we’ll get right of ways for that sort of stuff, but get an idea of how much it’ll cost.” (A plan to fill the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea with a canal to the Red Sea, some 800 miles [1,290 kilometers] away, was abandoned in 2021 after years of delays and international tensions; that project would have cost anywhere between $2 billion and $10 billion.)

Last summer, the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history. It’s expected to hit yet another low this year, after a winter of disappointing snowpack and continued drought conditions, as well as human overuse of resources upstream. As of Wednesday, more than 99% of the state was in a moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Last month, Utah Governor Spencer Cox issued a state of emergency thanks to the “volatile” nature of the drought.

Advertisement

That’s bad news, not only for the delicate and important ecosystems around the lake but also for Utah’s economy: Industries around the lake, like shrimp farming and mineral extraction, rake in some $1.3 billion each year, while lake tourism is also one of the state’s top industries. A larger area of dry lakebed could also be bad news for air quality when dust is stirred up.

The Lake’s plummeting levels seem to have sounded serious alarm bells in the Legislature. “We’re dead serious about this,” Commission co-chair Rep. Joel Ferry (R) told Fox 13 reporter Ben Winslow when asked if the commission was serious about studying a pipeline. “I mean, Ben, desperate times call for desperate measures and all options are on the table.”

Advertisement

Two experts I called—neither of whom had heard of the idea of a lake-to-ocean pipeline until I reached out—seemed to agree that the situation was dire enough to warrant at least exploring the possibility.

“I’m not the least bit surprised to hear about a proposal like that,” said Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah. Steenburgh emphasized that he’s not a hydrologist, so can’t comment on the efficacy or possible mechanics of the plan, but he did paint a pretty dire picture for the lake’s future.

Advertisement

“We’re just getting started” with seeing the impacts of climate change and drought on the lake, Steenburgh said. “We have to have a solution where more water goes to the Great Salt Lake, either through natural stream flow or, you know, now we’re hearing about this pipeline proposal. That proposal is probably going to be extremely expensive and not very practical, but who knows? It’s often said that water flows uphill to money, so I don’t exactly know where this will go. But we’re in the very early stages in figuring out how we can save, or at least mitigate, the decline of the Great Salt Lake.”

Simon Wang, a professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University, had similar thoughts.

Advertisement

“Proposing a study is not the same as starting a project, so I think it’s worth a discussion,” Wang said. Wang pointed out that the Pacific Ocean is actually much less salty than the Salt Lake—the lake’s salinity varies, but parts of it are up to 10 times saltier—which could throw a wrench into any proposed plans. But the huge systemic issues at play, the West’s general overuse of water resources, plus global climate change, mean that local solutions are only part of the answer.

“The [Utah] government can always implement water conservation measures, but that won’t be enough,” he said. “The contribution from a local water use isn’t the whole picture—the greatest picture comes from out-of-state.”

Advertisement

The same goes for the drought conditions, exacerbated by climate change, Wang said.

“Utah alone, the government alone, won’t be enough—it has to take coordinated measures,” he said. “If we want to mitigate this drought, it has to extend to the global climate. Our climate variability here connects to everywhere in the world. Only when we fix that global issue can we get rid of this problem.”